If you have been around the drone community for any length of time, you have probably heard drone enthusiasts recommend following a pre-flight checklist. While it might seem unnecessary to have a pre-flight checklist for a drone, the fact remains that these small aerial systems operate in the overlying airspace. A pre-flight checklist is a foolproof way to ensure that each and every flight is conducted safely.
In most cases, following a few safety-related steps can mean the difference between an unnecessary accident and a safe flight. We created a one-size-fits-all pre-flight procedure that is a great starting place for all drone operations.
In addition, we have provided a detailed commentary of any steps warranting further explanation.
The Complete Drone Pre-Flight Checklist
The complete drone pre-flight checklist is divided into two sections – steps to be completed at home and those to be completed on-site.
Check the weather forecast for the area
Before you set out, be sure to check the weather forecast for the area in which you will be flying. In particular, look at the forecast winds, temperature, and precipitation, and cross-check this information with the operational limitations published by the manufacturer. If the weather is suitable for flight, proceed with the checklist. If not, find another place to fly.
Note: Think about the potential effects of things like the wind; if you plan on flying a far distance, think about how wind direction and velocity might help or hinder the drone’s performance.
Check the airspace for the area and get authorization (if needed)
Use a resource like Airmap to check the classification of the airspace in which you plan to fly. If needed, ensure that you obtain authorization to fly in controlled airspace. Although drones are small, they still operate in federally-regulated airspace. Automated authorization is available at select locations through apps like Airmap and Kittyhawk.
Check NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen)
Check NOTAMs for the area in which you plan on flying to gain situational awareness and avoid potential hazards. NOTAMs often include information about low-altitude obstructions that might be a factor in drone operation.
Survey the site using Google Maps or Google Earth
Check that the drone’s mobile app is up to date
Check that the drone’s firmware is up to date
Drone firmware updates are released periodically. These updates improve the safety and reliability of a drone’s operation. Thus, it is important to ensure that there are no available firmware updates before setting out to fly.
Check that all hardware is charged
Before setting out, it is critical to ensure that all hardware necessary for the flight is fully charged. The typical hardware necessary for drone operation includes a mobile device, remote controller, and drone batteries.
Check that the SD card is formatted and inserted into the drone
The last thing you want is to arrive on-site and realize that you forgot your SD card at home. Prior to setting out, double-check that the memory card is clear and inserted into the drone.
Survey the area for obstacles
Upon arrival, visually inspect the area for obstacles that might not have been visible on the preliminary survey, such as powerlines. This will give you a better understanding of the surrounding area, helping you avoid a preventable mishap.
Establish a safe takeoff/landing area
Find an area suitable for takeoff and landing. This location should be flat and free of obstacles. In addition, be sure to choose an area free of overhead obstacles like trees or powerlines.
Note: Avoid areas with sand, gravel, grass, or other small debris; debris from these surfaces could harm the drone’s components if stirred up from the prop downwash on startup and takeoff.
Unfold the drone’s arms (if applicable)
Inspect the drone for damaged components
Thoroughly inspect the drone for any signs of damage. In particular, check the props and motors for any damage that might render the operation of the drone unsafe.
Check that the props are securely attached and unfolded
Ensure that the props are securely attached to the motors. For safety reasons, this step is critical. Then, unfold the blades. This will minimize stress on the motors and the surrounding components when the motors are started.
Remove the gimbal cover
Forgetting to remove the gimbal cover is a common mistake that virtually every drone operator will make at some point. This step is important because failing to remove the gimbal cover could result in damage to the gimbal motor as it attempts to move the gimbal around during startup.
Secure any additional accessories and/or payload
Attach any additional accessories (such as ND filters). If your drone will be carrying any type of payload (i.e. a different camera), attach it.
Insert the battery
Make sure that the battery is properly inserted into the body of the drone. To ensure that the battery is seated securely, slightly pull on it. If there is no play, proceed with the checklist.
Place the drone on the ground in the designated takeoff area
Turn on all devices and connect components
Power on the drone and remote controller, connect the mobile device to the remote controller and launch the drone’s particular mobile app.
Check the IMU and calibrate if needed
Check that the IMU is normal. If it is abnormal, there will typically be a caution prompting you to calibrate it. If the IMU is abnormal, follow the proper calibration procedure. Having a properly-functioning IMU is critical, as it helps control and measures the drone’s altitude and velocity.
Check the compass and calibrate if needed
Check that the compass is normal. If it is abnormal, follow the proper calibration procedure. The compass is a critical component, as it helps the drone determine its heading. Should the return-to-home function be activated, the compass is the primary component that guides the drone back to the correct location.
Check the GPS signal strength (if applicable)
Check to see if the drone has adequate satellite coverage. For GPS drones, this step is critical, as it ensures that the drone will hold its position during flight. It is recommended to wait until the drone has acquired the maximum number of satellites before proceeding.
Set return-to-home altitude
Set the desired return-to-home altitude, ensuring that the specified altitude is higher than any obstacles in the area (like trees or buildings).
Set the home point
Set the home point, and make sure that it is accurate. Should the return-to-home feature be activated, this will ensure that the drone has the correct reference point so that it can make it back to the proper location.
Check all relevant camera settings
Ensure that the proper camera settings are selected.
Perform a hover check
Start to motors, and bring the drone to a stationary hover slightly above head level. For 20-30 seconds, monitor the drone itself along with the on-screen feed for any abnormal indications. If the drone holds its position, proceed with the checklist.
Note: it is normal for the drone to waver slightly and make subtle attitude adjustments in windy conditions. This indicates that the GPS is functioning properly, as the drone is compensating for the environmental conditions.
Conduct the flight
During the flight, continuously monitor the on-screen indications, and maintain overall situational awareness.
Land the drone
A thorough post-flight checklist is also important, as it will reveal any damage the drone sustained during the flight.
Turn off all devices
Power off the drone and remote controller, and close the mobile app.
Inspect the drone for damage
Again, inspect the drone for any signs of damage. In particular, inspect the props for cracks, chips, or warping, and inspect the motors and arms for damage.
Remove the battery
Some drone operators prefer to leave a battery in the drone while not in use, but this is not recommended. Should the battery be turned on inadvertently, the gimbal motor might be strained. This situation could also be a fire hazard.
Let the motors cool
Check to see if the drone’s motors are still warm. If so, allow them to cool off before proceeding with the checklist.
Secure the gimbal cover
Be sure to securely reattach the gimbal cover. This will prevent the gimbal from being damaged while the drone is transported.
Fold the legs (if applicable) and stow the drone
Fold the props (or remove them completely), fold the legs, and stow your equipment.
Transfer data (if applicable)
When able, transfer any data from the SD card onto a hard drive.
And there you have it – the complete drone pre-flight and post-flight checklist. Follow these steps each and every time you fly to promote safety and keep your drone in good working order.